Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty



Sam writes:


Bro. Eric writes:

   Jesus loves you so much.  Even if you choose to not 
believe in Him.  Jesus is so loving.  God is so Holy.  Jesus 
loves you so much and desires to save you.  No matter 
how you try to disprove Him, He is still so real!  He will 
come back, just like He said!  It will not be much longer, 
you better be ready. . . [etc.]

Jack writes:

   My primary problem with attempts to prove or disprove
the historicity of Jesus is that, even if we can show that
the mythology surrounding Jesus in the New Testament
was fabricated from various sources, that does not, in and
of itself, disprove that there was an actual man at the core.
   The example I like to use is Arthur.  Here we have a
huge body of mythology and legend, obviously assembled
from various earlier sources, but attached to a figure that
may well have been historical.  And this happened much
more recently than Jesus.
   My point is, yes, it is unlikely that a man ever lived the
life and said all the things attributed to Jesus in the Gospels,
but that does not eliminate de facto the possibility that
there was indeed a figure, perhaps of some prominence,
perhaps not, that was the root of these stories.
   If Paul indeed considered Jesus to be a figure in the
obscure past, might he in fact have had some knowledge
of the Yeishu ha-Notzri mentioned in the Talmud
(died c.4 CE)?

Response to Jack:

Comparing Jesus and Arthur

Your point is one that is often voiced, and not just in answer to me. At first glance, it sounds reasonable, except for a number of considerations. First, as I have pointed out in several places, the picture offered by the early writers about their faith and its history is often presented in ways which exclude room and role for "an actual man at the core." (Titus 1:3, for example, or Paul's talk of the Spirit.) If we had near-contemporary material about the history of England which covered the presumed time and place of the legendary Arthur, and this said things which tended to exclude the possibility of such a king having been on the scene, this would very much weigh against any historical Arthur's existence.

Second is the highly problematic nature of any thesis which postulates that a human man, especially one who did not do the amazing things attributed to him in the Gospels, could have been raised to the cosmic level this Jesus was supposedly raised almost as soon as he was laid in his grave (and especially in a Jewish milieu). One does not turn an obscure preacher, let alone a crucified criminal, into a transcendent deity for no justifiable reason. And the record shows, by its silence, that he would not have been a figure of any great "prominence". This dilemma I discuss at the end of my Postscript.

Attaching "a huge body of mythology and legend" to a humble rabbi makes far less sense than translating a mythological figure into a story of a human man, and the latter fits the documentary record, especially in terms of order, much better. I would also maintain, as a third point, that the profound depth of the silence which is found in the non-Gospel and Acts record, about any "actual man at the core", is strong evidence in itself against such a man's existence. Your comparison with Arthur is not really valid, because the myth and legend attached to him is still at the human, historical level; it has not turned Arthur into a god with absolutely no reference to any kingship on earth.

You also misunderstand (your last question) my presentation of Paul's view of Jesus. You may be confusing my interpretation of things with the views of Professor G. A. Wells, another writer on the myth theory, who has suggested that Paul saw his Jesus as a human man who lived in obscurity perhaps two or three centuries before his own time. As outlined in Part Two (and I refer to my disagreement with Professor Wells in the Preamble), I find no evidence of such a view on Paul's part. Rather, I think that Paul and the rest of the early 'Christians' believed in an entirely spiritual Christ who had never been on earth, but lived and worked in heaven, in the layers of the spirit world. Such activities were revealed in scripture. This was in keeping with views of the universe at the time, and exactly as the mythical deities of the Greek mystery cults were envisioned.

Tom writes:

   Great!  For me the most astounding thing of our times
is that the Jesus myth survives.  Does anyone have any
ideas or plans to wake up the misled?  Perhaps a
well-financed, professionally done (made for TV)
documentary would help.

Response to Tom:

In our dreams!

Doug writes:

   I would say that your thesis is one of the most
compelling I have ever read on the subject....I think it's
brilliant and a tremendous contribution to scholarship....
Yet a gut instinct about human nature compels me to
feel as well that "something" motivated the social
program attributed to Jesus, if for no other reason as
regards its inclusion of women, both as active
participants in the gospel narratives, and as the first
witnesses to the resurrection, where women's roles
were so otherwise culturally marginalized both before
and particularly afterward by the early church itself.  
This seems like something very strange for first century have invented.

Response to Doug:

Jesus as Epitome of Broad Movements / Women at the Tomb

If Jesus did exist, what was he if not a "first century man"? You seem to be saying that you can accept that a solitary individual could come up with an innovative social program, and yet not that a society as a whole, or certain innovative segments within it, could do the same thing (without at least being prodded by some unusual individual). I would see it differently. One of the ways of looking at the historicized Jesus is that he served to epitomize more general trends of development within "reform" movements of the period.

It has always been a natural human tendency to want to regard the development of progressive ideas, new technologies, better social and political systems, as the product of exceptional individuals, idealized forerunners, sometimes even as proceeding from divinities. In reality, it is usually a society as a whole or a group within it, a trend that is 'in the air', a process taking place over time, which produces an innovation or a swing in a new direction. There may be many subtle factors involved. Eventually, these developments can become attached in the popular or group mind to a famous figure in their past, or embodied in an entirely fictitious personality. History is full of invented founders for religious, social and national movements, such as Taoism's Lao-Tse, Lycurgus of Sparta, or William Tell as the architect of the Swiss Confederation. (It is now thought that none of these ever existed.)

This means that many of the things attached to a fictional Jesus of Nazareth, the pieces of the Gospel picture, are really descriptive of the communities which produced these Gospels. They represent the experiences of their leaders and preachers, of the foot soldiers who carried on the sect's activities. It is the sectarian community itself which is in conflict with the establishment around it.

The idea of God's imminent Kingdom was one of the driving forces of the age; groups like the one which produced the Q document had formed to preach it. It was Christian prophets who performed 'miracles', a phenomenon that was an expected and indispensable sign of the coming of the Kingdom. The movement as a whole produced the innovative ethics, drawing in some cases on precedents and outside sources. Indeed, the urge to such reform was one of the main impulses to the movement in the first place.

The human Jesus, the catalogue of what he says and does, is simply the epitomization of all these trends and personalities. He was developed essentially to provide a focus for all these things, a hook to hang them on, so to speak. In this way, they could be rendered more understandable, more authoritative. This was made more inevitable by the fact that among some groups, this human figure was able to crystallize out of a previous stage of belief in which the sect worshipped a spiritual divinity who had operated in the mythical realm and communicated with believers from there. It was a relatively simple task to bring him to earth and make him the originator in history of the sect's activities and doctrines.

As for your point about the unusual (for the time) role given to women by the evangelists, something which tends to be focused on in certain circles of modern New Testament scholarship, such a judgment may not be as justified as it first seems. The principal appeal is usually to the supposed honor given to women as the first witnesses to the risen Jesus. But think about it. All the Gospel accounts of the passion and resurrection go back to a single source: Mark. But Mark (whose original version ends at 16:8) had no idea of offering resurrection appearances on Easter morning. As the 'inventor' of the Jesus story, he had not progressed that far. The angel at the tomb simply announces that Jesus will appear in Galilee to his disciples at some unspecified time, which may refer to the future Parousia, or End-time. (Paul, of course, has nothing to say about such women, or even a tomb.)

Thus, all Mark needed was someone to witness the empty tomb, simply a literary vehicle for his story's ending. It seems likely to me that he got the idea that this could be women who have gone to anoint the body (16:1). When Matthew and Luke and later John came to revise Mark's passion story for their own Gospels, they were stuck with this element of women being the first at the tomb. But each of them had also decided to add actual resurrection appearances to Mark's threadbare ending. Matthew gave the first appearance of Jesus to these women, as did John (to Mary Magdalene). Luke was reluctant and instead gave the honor, curiously, to two minor disciples on the road to Emmaus.

In view of what is now acknowledged (by groups like the Jesus Seminar) about the contradictory and evolving nature of the resurrection traditions in the Gospels, it is no longer possible to regard early Christianity as deviating so much from contemporary attitudes toward "women's roles", especially since certain references in the New Testament epistles would indicate that any deviation, at least in those circles, was virtually non-existent.

Christian writes:

    As an attorney I found your arguments interesting.
However, your heavy emphasis on the lack of statements
made about Jesus by first century "historians" wouldn't
hold up very well in court.  Your explanation is nothing
more than your opinion.  I can think of numerous other
explanations for the lack of first century historical
writings that would sound just as interesting and
compelling as yours.  I am curious, are there any second
century authors you can quote that vehemently deny the
historical basis for Jesus?

Response to Christian:

The Silence in the Epistles / Christian Denial of an Historical Jesus

First of all, I hardly think a brief reference buried in my Postscript is a "heavy emphasis", if I am correct in assuming that you are referring to Josephus and company, and not "historians" like Paul. But then, maybe you're not. In which case, yes I do place an emphasis on the pervasive silence to be found in all the Christian correspondence about the figure of an historical Gospel Jesus. There is no sensible explanation, let alone a "compelling" one, for three generations of Christian letter writers to ignore any and every aspect of their divine Christ's earthly life and identity. I don't know how many desperate, farfetched, fallacious and sheerly ludicrous arguments I have read in various New Testament commentators' works to explain this or that silence, which collectively extends to parentage, places of life and ministry, sayings and teachings, miracles, details of the trial (or even that he was tried), details of the passion, words on the cross, holy places, etc. etc., even the very fact of incarnation to earth.

This is not the quirk of one document or one writer, but of all the epistles and many non-canonical writings. You will have noted that I have recourse to declaring only two brief passages as interpolations, and in this I have the agreement of many regular scholars.

To these 'negative' silences we must add the 'positive' ones: how Paul and others speak of the early Christian movement in ways which not only show no knowledge of an historical Jesus, but often clearly exclude the possibility of such a figure. Again, scholars regularly tie themselves in knots trying to explain such things or reinterpret them along fanciful lines. We thus have a case which in any other discipline would bring in a verdict of "guilty beyond any reasonable doubt." Finally, when the whole Jesus-as-myth theory is measured against the religious and philosophical patterns of the time, and can be seen to fit perfectly into that context, I would simply say, "I rest my case."

As for your last question, if you mean by "second century authors" non-Christian ones, then no, I can quote no pagan writers who deny the historical basis for Jesus. Unfortunately, men like Celsus and the satirist Lucian were as misled by the Gospels as most Christians were, and seem not to have possessed the ability or opportunity to track down sources or analyze the documents themselves.

However, where we can detect denials is, ironically, in a number of Christian writings. The dispute in 1 John 4 is clearly over whether there was an historical Jesus. The writer condemns those (and they are Christian preachers, welcomed into some believers' homes, as 2 John 10 indicates) who deny that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh." Hebrews 8:4 virtually tells us that in this writer's mind Jesus had never been on earth. Ignatius in his letters, such as Trallians 9, warns his readers not to listen to those who do not preach a Jesus born of Mary and crucified by Pilate. Justin, in his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, has his Jewish opponent say, "You have invented a Christ for yourselves," which must reflect an accusation of the time. And most tellingly, as you can read in my "Second Century Apologists" article here on the Web site, the apologetic document known as Minucius Felix (or Octavius) heaps scorn on those who believe in 'a crucified man and his cross'. If that's not a vehement denial of the historical Jesus—and by a Christian to boot—I don't know what your evidentiary standard is. I would call it a true "smoking gun".

Guilty, or not guilty? Well, this is not a court of law, but in the field of historical research we do examine evidence and we do try to arrive at "probabilities" in the absence of mathematical certainty. It may not be a matter of an individual's life and death, but if the last 1900 years of Christianity have been based on, not a deception, not a lie, not a fraud, for nothing was deliberate, but a bizarre twist of creative writing and mythmaking, then for these two millennia all of us in Western society (not to mention those who have suffered at the hands of Christian pretensions all around the world) have been the victims of a fantasy whose dimensions are simply too disturbing to contemplate.

Jan writes from The Netherlands:

   Thanks for your wonderful essays on the Jesus Puzzle.  
It is by far the best I have read on this problem in years.  
It is brilliantly written and as far as I know, the only theory 
that explains how all these bizarre developments were 
possible in a Jewish context.  I am familiar with Jewish 
culture and could never understand how, in that context, 
a human being could be promoted to the status of God.  
Your theory provides the answer: it was the other way 
around, a Hellenistic divine being was gradually 
historicized in a gentile context.
   I also agree with your assessment of the Jesus Seminar.  
It's a subtle and modernized form of Christian apologetics 
in my opinion.  Crossan, for instance, creates his own 
Jesus of wishful thinking, transparently related to his Irish 
background (poor peasants under the yoke of imperialism).
  If you don't mind I have a few remarks about your essays.  
First of all, Herman Ridderbos is not German but Dutch.  
Furthermore, one fundamental issue is not entirely clear to 
me.  From your essays, I get the impression that the 
Gospels were--in a Jewish context--written as a kind of 
midrash and were later misinterpreted in a gentile context 
as history.  This view is very convincing, in my opinion.  
On the other hand, you might get the impression from your 
story that the Gospels were written as part of that 
historicization process itself, to give the Jesus movement 
a historical founding story.  Both views are not entirely 
compatible; it's either midrash or writing (intended) real 
history.  Am I overlooking something or is there some kind 
of unclarity here in your account?

Response to Jan:

The Historicization Process: Mark, Q, Ignatius and the Epistle of Barnabas

Thanks for your encouraging review of The Jesus Puzzle. I'll offer you a special apology, as a resident of The Netherlands, for getting Herman Ridderbos' nationality wrong. And I would like to address myself to the query you put forward, which may reflect an "unclarity" on my part, though partly because of space considerations.

I said in Part Three that "historical developments tend to be more subtle and complex than any academic presentation of them on paper," and I am perceiving this more and more. But let's look at the evidence that is available to us. You are right in noting that I do speak of two "processes" that are quite distinct in the creation of the historical Jesus. There is little doubt in modern liberal scholars' minds that Mark, and even the later evangelists, are engaging in midrash techniques in the creation of the Gospel story. That is, in the absence of concrete historical tradition (so the scholars put it) these writers are 'filling in the blanks' by drawing on scripture to create their tale of Jesus. Some claim that the evangelists regarded scripture as pointing to history, that Jesus acted in fulfilment of the prophets, but this idea is all but ignored in the earliest Gospel, Mark. And where Mark is concerned, virtually his entire Gospel is 'filled blanks'. A handful of echoes of Q-like traditions, perhaps, plus Paul's "Lord's Supper" scene (readily identifiable as a mythic creation) are the only precursors Mark seems to draw on (Burton Mack notwithstanding).

In addition, Mark's Gospel, as a piece of whole fabric, fits the midrash mold so well that one has to suspect it is substantially invention from start to finish. It is the story of God's establishment of a new covenant, one that includes gentiles and introduces innovative social patterns and ethical rules (liberalized in defiance of Pharisaic tradition); all of it is in preparation for the establishment of the Kingdom. Every element of Jesus' character and activities is made to fit into this picture, with parallels in the story of the establishment of the old covenant. This mirroring of the older archetype is typical of midrash. I won't go into detail here, but the point is, broader concepts were often gotten across through the vehicle of a fictional, midrashic story, and it is wholly feasible the "Mark" sat down to reflect the fulfilment of scripture and God's plan for the world (typified in his own sectarian community), one previously grounded on a cultic spiritual Christ (like Paul's), but which Mark decided to embody in a vivid, metaphorical tale of a Jesus acting on earth and in recent history. (See the book review of John Shelby Spong's Liberating the Gospels for a further view of Mark's intentions.)

Now, did Mark have any other influences or "sources" acting upon him? He seems to have been exposed to some Q traditions, but not likely the written document form which Matthew and Luke used, since so much from this is missing. Did a member or members of the Q community in Galilee migrate at some point to the place where Mark wrote his Gospel? (Mack suggests this might be Sidon or Tyre.) Did they carry some newly developing traditions (though nothing written) about an invented founder figure to whom the Q community's history of preaching and controversy with the establishment were in the process of being attached, who was perhaps already being identified with the eschatological Son of Man? (The latter was something 'in the air' at the time among both Jewish and Christian circles, and Mark's own community may already have been speculating about him.) Did this Q founder figure have an influence on the development of Mark's midrashic tale?

It's important to realize that, in my theory, the development of a Q founder was at first something quite distinct from the cultic Jesus; that is, he was not, in the Q community's mind, the Messiah or identifiable with any spiritual figure believed in by circles like Paul's. There is throughout all but perhaps the tail end of Q development, no overlap whatsoever between Paul's Jesus and the invented Q founder, even though both movements were more or less partly co-existing in time. The Q community would have been entirely Jewish in character, and scholars have long accepted the fact that the Q Jesus is completely lacking any elements concerning a death and resurrection, let alone a redeeming role. (This leaves one nagging question which I will address at the end of this response.) The ultimate 'wedding' of Q traditions with the midrashic Jesus of Mark—if this is indeed what happened—would have been a melding of two originally distinct elements.

On the other hand, quite apart from the influence of any Q traditions about a founder figure, can we see evidence of a process acting within the cultic movement itself which was urging the historicization of the spiritual Christ? Was it independent of the Gospel-writing process and perhaps itself had an influence on Mark? I believe we can see that process in Ignatius, as well as glimmers of it in 1 Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas.

In several key passages in his letters, Ignatius urges belief in the historicity of the bare details of a life of Jesus, including that he was born of a mother named Mary and that he died at the hands of Pilate. (There are good arguments, which some scholars support, for rejecting that these particular statements are part of an 'anti-docetic' stance.) The fact that Ignatius never appeals to any Gospel as proof of these historical details is sufficient to establish that he knew of none, and this scholars generally admit. The one Gospel-like scene he does draw on (Smyrneans 3), to prove Jesus' resurrection in flesh, is not identified as coming from a Gospel and would constitute a very inaccurate rendering of a Lukan or Johannine passage. I would suggest it is an anecdote developed in certain preaching or teaching circles known to Ignatius, as well as to the evangelists. Ignatius is not dealing in midrash here, so he gives evidence of historicizing tendencies within the cultic movement independent of the Gospels.

What was the impulse to these tendencies? Perhaps a mix of factors, but Barnabas (unlike Ignatius) spells out that it is scripture itself which provides details of Christ's life, a life he does seem to set in an unspecified historical past. (Barnabas is usually dated c.115-120, in Alexandria.) In 5:3, for example, Barnabas praises God for giving information about the past through scripture, implying that this is the sole source for such information. He even seems to say (5:12) that "we know" that the Jews were responsible for Jesus' suffering and death because scripture tells us! Somewhere, too, he has gotten the idea (5:8-9) that Jesus taught the people of Israel and worked miracles (though he never gives examples of either), and that the apostles he chose "were sinners of the worst kind", hardly a valid judgment from any Gospel picture. In fact, he seems to deduce this from a line he quotes, that Jesus "came not to call saints but sinners," something he does not attribute to Jesus himself or any Gospel, and in fact interprets in a contradictory fashion to the way in which the Gospel of Mark uses it: applying it to apostles instead of people in general. (If we compare it to another line quoted in 4:14, again not attributed to Jesus, we may assume Barnabas got it from a piece of writing he regarded as sacred.) Scholars are more or less agreed that Barnabas knew no Gospel, since his 'descriptions' of Christ's passion are entirely quotations from Isaiah and the Psalms.

And so on. But did this 'historicizing' process influence Mark? It's impossible to be sure, though perhaps the idea that the cultic Christ had lived on earth could have been floating about when Mark was writing. I think 1 John, written probably in the 90s, points to the time when the idea first arose (and met opposition) that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (4:1f). Barnabas is a couple of decades later, and I would tend to place Mark no earlier than the late 80s, but it's possible Mark could have been working under the nascent impression that scripture was pointing to some historical situation. As I say, "historical developments tend to be subtle and complex," but that's the nature of many historical investigations which rely on a hodge-podge of loose and contradictory documentation. In the field of historical research, often all we can arrive at are 'probable interpretations', hopefully compelling ones.

Finally, that "nagging question" about Q? It's this: If their founder figure, as he arose in the Q3 stage, was entirely human (epitomizing the activities of the Q people themselves, as invented founders do), and was unrelated to the cultic Christ and not a redeemer, why was he named "Jesus", which was a name in use throughout most of the cultic circles (not all) and means "Savior" in Hebrew?

To answer that question I will quote a passage from my "Jesus Puzzle" novel, in which the central character, an historical novelist who researches the question of the historical Jesus and comes to the conclusion that no such man existed, addresses this very point. (Part of his research, for variety's sake, is presented through dialogue passages and character interaction, and all of it is set against a background plot of the emerging secular society of our time and the struggle with Christian fundamentalism.) Anyway, here he is, at the end of an investigation of the whole Q question. . . .

(Note: for Web-posting purposes, I am forced to separate paragraphs by spaces and eliminate first-line indentations.)

One final point to Jan: It's not quite 'kosher' to say that "a Hellenistic divine being was gradually historicized . . ." Although he owed much to Hellenistic influences, both first and second hand, the spiritual Christ of Paul was definitely a Jewish character, or more specifically, a Jewish-style version (within 'unorthodox' sectarian circles) of a widespread religious phenomenon shared with Greek religious and philosophical trends. Christianity lived within the broader thought world, and was a product, of its time. There is still much debate over how much Paul was influenced by the Greek mysteries, but that he was immune to their pervasion of the world around him is impossible. He was, after all (if Luke in Acts is to be believed), a native of Tarsus, and it was in this Greek and highly Stoicized city that the Hellenistic version of the cult of Mithras arose (beginning of 1st century BCE) and was flourishing at the time of Paul—Mithras, with its cultic sacred meal so close to the one Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 11:23. Even then, the world was a small place.

Jeff writes:

   Although I do accept the historicity of Jesus, I would 
join you in rejecting all extra-biblical references to Jesus 
(except Josephus).  My question for you is this: how do 
you respond to Christian apologists who cite Tertullian's 
reference to Tiberius' reference to Jesus?

Response to Jeff:

A Letter from Pilate to Tiberius about Jesus?

Ah, yes. Pilate's letter to Tiberius on his execution of Jesus, and the ageing emperor's championing of Christ and his divinity before a hostile Senate at Rome. This is reported around the year 197 by Tertullian in his Apology (5): "Tiberius . . . having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ's divinity, brought the matter before the Senate, with his own decision in favor of Christ."

Any scholar today who would suggest that this is anything more than a piece of naive nonsense would be laughed out of the halls of academe. In Hennecke's 2-volume New Testament Apocrypha, the reviewer of the literature of this sort surrounding Pilate (vol. 1, 444-84) considers that Tertullian had access to a recent, forged Christian document under Pilate's name. In fact, several different versions of such a letter have survived, cast in such pious language on the part of Pilate that Tertullian could suggest that the Roman governor had been converted to the faith! Such things only serve to illustrate the shameless and ludicrous invention (not to mention the church Fathers' own credulity!) which we know abounded throughout the entire documentary career of early Christianity. To claim that the same kind of invention did not extend into those documents chosen for the canon is itself a piece of astonishing naivete.

In one version of Pilate's letter, the governor enlightens the emperor on the wondrous state of Lazarus' body as he emerged from the tomb, gives an account of the darkness over the whole world during the crucifixion (which Tiberius himself, along with the rest of the empire, had presumably experienced), and recounts the words of Jesus at one of his post-resurrection appearances. Pilate also records events the evangelists overlooked, including the swallowing up of various Jewish leaders and even whole synagogues in a series of earthquakes, as punishment for their role in the killing of Jesus.

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